Written Consents Now Required When a Lawyer Subpoenas a Current Client for Another Client’s Lawsuit

According to a formal opinion issued by the New York City bar’s ethics committee, an attorney who must subpoena a current client for another client’s lawsuit typically has a conflict of interest requiring that the attorney secure informed written consent from both clients.

In considering the issue, the committee reasoned that testifying or producing documents in response to a subpoena are inconveniences that entail loss of money and time for the client subpoenaed. Such requests advanced through a coerced discovery may affect a client’s loyalty towards his or her lawyer. As such, subpoenaing a client involves representation of “differing interests” under Rule 1.7(a).

To prevent a violation of Rule 1.7, the committee advised attorneys to implement conflict-checking procedures before preparing and serving subpoenas. If a conflict is discovered, attorneys must obtain informed consents from both parties. The committee further advised attorneys to run a conflict check prior to being retained if it is apparent that current clients will be subject to discovery. If a conflict is preemptively discovered, the attorney must obtain informed consent from both parties, limit the scope of the representation to exclude the attorney from obtaining discovery, or decline the representation altogether.

Read the full opinion here

To Shred, or Not to Shred: That is the Question – Nebraska Permits Attorneys to Shred Physical Files

The Nebraska Supreme Court’s ethics committee has released an advisory opinion permitting attorneys to destroy physical copies of a client’s closed file so long as it is preserved in electronic form. However, the opinion advises that before a physical file may be digitized and subsequently destroyed, attorneys should consider:

  • the availability and cost of physical and electronic storage space,
  • ease of access to documents,
  • the potential need for original documents in future litigation,
  • preservation of client confidentiality, and
  • any other considerations that are pertinent to the contents of that file.

The advisory opinion was issued in response to a legal services organization’s question regarding whether digitally storing scanned images in lieu of physical storage would satisfy the Nebraska Rules of Professional Conduct, which require attorneys to preserve client files for a period of five years after termination of representation. However, the rules do not indicate whether lawyers are required to preserve those files in physical form. With the release of this opinion, the ethics committee has clarified that with the new advances in technology, it is no longer reasonable OR practical to keep physical or paper copies of every client’s files and thus allowed for the digitizing of files.

Find the full opinion here.

LA County Bar: Attorneys Hooked by Online “Catfish” Risk Ethical Violations

The Los Angeles County Bar Association Professional Responsibility and Ethics Committee recently issued an advisory opinion considering the repercussions for an attorney who communicates sensitive information to an online “catfish” –otherwise known as an individual who assumes a false identity in order to elicit sensitive information or otherwise defraud an unsuspecting person. The committee concluded that although an attorney may believe that his online disclosures are “innocuous,” the “lawyer’s unguarded disclosure of client information might result in violations of the duties of competence and confidentiality and might cause the loss of the lawyer-client privilege and work product protection.”

In the advisory opinion, the committee analyzed a scenario where an attorney communicated with a person online who claimed to be working in a “non-legal industry.” During their conversation, the attorney mentioned pending interviews with witnesses in an ongoing litigation, including information like the location of a witness and the subject of an expert’s expected testimony. The attorney was unaware that the person he was corresponding with was “actually associated with the opposing side of a pending case in which [the] attorney represents [the] client and is ‘catfishing.’”

In a detailed analysis of online “catfishing” and the “interplay of advancing technology and the lawyer’s professional responsibilities,” the committee reasoned that though the “incautious” online activity did not rise to the level of a full waiver of evidentiary privilege, the disclosures were enough to allow a person familiar with the litigation to “identify the witnesses and the significance of [the] attorney’s disclosure.” As such, the committee concluded that the scenario constituted a breach not only of the professional rules related to competence and confidentiality, but also a breach of the California Business and Professions Code 6068(e)(1), a state statute which obligates each attorney to preserve client “secrets.”

Read the full opinion here.

Is Avvo’s Referral Service Ethical? Florida May Add its Voice to the Chorus.

The New York State Bar Association recently joined other states that have found that the use of Avvo’s attorney referral service is impermissible as it violates the professional conduct rules that prohibit sharing fees with nonlawyers or paying a nonlawyer for a referral or recommendation. Avvo presents particular problems for the state bars as Avvo collects different fees depending upon the type of case that is referred to an attorney.

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors is scheduled to consider programs like Avvo at a December 2017 meeting as part of an ongoing attempt to revise the attorney referral rules in Florida. The Florida Bar Rules currently prohibit attorneys from sharing fees with for profit referral companies.

Proposed Advisory Opinion 17-2, which has yet to be drafted, will address whether attorneys may participate in private lawyer referral services, including services such as Avvo. The Florida Bar has solicited comments from Florida Bar members, pursuant to Procedures 6(d) and (e) of The Florida Bar Procedures for Ruling on Questions of Ethics Comments may include issues to be considered, a proposed conclusion, or suggestions for additional types of fee arrangements. Comments will be considered at The Florida Bar’s Fall Meeting on October 13, 2017

To read The Florida Bar’s notice click here click here.

To read more about the other state opinions concerning Avvo check out the informative blog posts at The Professional Responsibility Blog and the Legal Ethics Alert Blogs here and here.

New York City Bar: Is A Client’s Confidential Information Secure at the Border?

Attorney’s traveling across the U.S. border may have to account for more than just their luggage. In fact, the New York City Bar recently issued Formal Opinion 2017-5, which offers guidance on dealing with the threat of disclosing confidential client information during a border search of electronic devices.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policy allows U.S. customs agents to review electronic information that is physically stored on a traveler’s device. However, an attorney has an affirmative duty to take “reasonable steps” to avoid disclosing confidential information not authorized by a client.

The New York City Bar’s opinion emphasizes  that under New York’s Rule 1.6(b)(6), attorney’s may not  reveal confidential client information unless it is “reasonably necessary” to obey a “law or court order.” But what determines whether disclosure is reasonably necessary? The opinion states that disclosure of clients’ confidential information is not reasonably necessary if there are “reasonable, lawful alternatives to disclosure.”

For example, an attorney may explain to an inquiring border agent that the device contains client confidential information and request that the materials not be subject to the search. An attorney may also ask to talk to a supervisor and should be prepared to produce state bar identification.  If it becomes necessary for an attorney to disclose clients’ confidential information to the border patrol, then the client must thereafter be informed about the disclosure under New York’s Rule 1.4.

Generally, attorneys should consider the risks of carrying clients’ confidential information while traveling, avoid transporting confidential information when possible, and evaluate what safeguards are reasonable to protect confidential information in the event that it is necessary to carry the information out of the country.

To read the full opinion click here.